Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s backstage drama about Liberace, the fur-and-sequin-clad, ivory-tickling kitsch maestro of “wonderful” entertainment, and his relationship with Scott Thorson, the dewy hunk who became his romantic partner in the late 1970s, is a movie that I’ve been eager to see for many months. Nevertheless, when it was announced that the film wouldn’t just be playing at Cannes, but that it would be part of the hallowed roster of films shown in competition here, it raised my eyebrows.
Unless I’m mistaken, this is the first time that a movie set to premiere on American television — in this case, HBO — has been honored with a competition slot at Cannes. The festival, of course, has a long-term relationship with Soderbergh, going back to 1989, when sex, lies and videotape took the Palme d’Or. But it also struck me that the Cannes programmers were making a kind of cultural-political statement. Behind the Candelabra isn’t being released theatrically in the U.S. because, reportedly, no studio wanted a part of it — the word is that a number of executives thought it was “too gay” to be commercial. And let’s be clear: That’s insane. A movie about Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon? It may not be Iron Man 3, but plenty of people, I’m convinced, would want to buy a ticket to see that. It’s hard to say what’s worse about the shunning of the movie by film studios: the implicit homophobia, or the insult to cinema. The Cannes programmers have obviously done their bit to right that wrong, and in doing so they have made a second statement as well. They have now acknowledged, from their perch of prestige, that “cinema” can thrive on TV.
Here, however, is what I didn’t expect. Behind the Candelabra, which I saw at its premiere screening this morning, is a movie that earns its place in the Cannes competition roster not just because it’s smart and kitschy and fun and dark, or because it happens to be Steven Soderbergh’s official “last” film before his retirement. It earns its place because the film is an artfully made and creepily moving love story. Make no mistake: It belongs in a festival that has given us movies like Amour and sex, lies, and videotape.
The movie opens in 1977, when Liberace (Michael Douglas) is 58 years old, a far cry from the performer who, in the mid-1950s, had become the highest paid — and perhaps the most popular — showbiz figure in America, a kind of grinning, white-tuxedoed, classical-gas Elvis Presley for the fuddy-duddy Middle Americans Elvis had bypassed. Yet even past his prime, Liberace is quite the showman. Early on, we see him performing at a nightclub in Las Vegas, doing a “boogie-woogie” number with audience participation (they get to shout “Hey!” during the boogie-woogie break), and in his silly, harmless way, he’s mesmerizing. He’s also quite funny, because the extravagant joke of his performance, which almost no one in the audience gets, is that he’s the most flamboyantly open closeted gay man in history.
Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), an aspiring veterinarian who takes care of animals on movie sets, is there in the audience, having come to the show with his latest lover (who happens to know Liberace), and we can see why even a hip young man like Scott, who looks like Shaun Cassidy at a gay disco, would be drawn to the figure on stage wearing a suit so plastered with sparkles that it’s practically sci-fi. Sitting at his equally sparkly piano, with gold rings on his fingers the size of chestnuts, Liberace is no one to take seriously, but he’s pure musical champagne. He makes you feel good.
Backstage, Scott gets to meet him, and Michael Douglas’s stunning performance immediately disarms us with its mixture of sweetness and deceptive, curlicued ego. Doing a fine impersonation of Liberace’s effeminate silk smile of a voice, his way of caressing each word as if it were a kitty cat, Douglas plays him as tenderly sincere and, at the same time, outrageously vain. (He’s so honest about his vanity that he makes that charming.) When Lee, as Liberace is known to his friends, fastens his mascara’d eyes on Scott, and then gets him to come over to his glitzy palace of a Vegas mansion (golden walls, nude statues, bedroom ceiling painted like a mini Sistine Chapel, enough baroque bric-a-brac to make Michael Jackson’s decorating tastes look Amish), and he then beckons Scott to crawl into bed with him (“I promise, I’ll stay on my side!”), we can see, right in front of us, the basic parasitical outlines that will define their relationship. Liberace is a world-famous celebrity; Scott is a nobody. Liberace is old; Scott is 19. (Damon, his face framed by billowy parted-down-the-middle hair, still looks downy and angelic enough to make that work.) Liberace is rich; Scott has no money. And one more dichotomy, this a table-turning one: Liberace is a slave to his public image as a “straight” man (who wanted to marry the Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie!); Scott, who claims to be bisexual (which may be a bit of a stretch), is basically open about his attraction to men.
The movie, which is based on Thorson’s memoir (the terrific script is by Richard LaGravenese), suggests that Liberace is, in essence, a caramelized vampire seducing his latest boy toy. Yet the relationship between the two of them grows out of a genuine rapport. Scott, a bit of a lost soul, with a patchy upbringing (he was mostly not raised by his parents), is looking for a family. And Liberace, though he has a powerful libido that the movie, to its credit, never mocks, isn’t just out for sex. He gets plenty of that; he wants love. And he finds it in Scott, as Douglas and Damon act together to build a complicated and even touching intimacy.
Then, out of the blue, Liberace, stung by seeing himself on The Tonight Show (“I look like my father!”), decides to go in for a round of plastic surgery. As he’s meeting with the surgeon, amusingly played as a squinty-eyed L.A. freaknik by Rob Lowe, Lee announces that he wants Scott to get facial surgery too: He wants the surgery to make Scott look just like him. This amazingly queasy idea, which gets illustrated by Soderbergh with a couple of ironically upbeat plastic-surgery montages, suddenly nudges Behind the Candelabra into the zone of being a sick-joke celebrity horror movie. Yet even when Scott emerges with his new face, the love story doesn’t fade; it deepens, disturbingly. And even when Liberace makes his next weirdly queasy request — that he be allowed to legally adopt Scott — one’s initial reaction, which is that that’s one of the most inappropriate things you’ve ever heard, grows more complicated with time. Yes, Liberace is a father figure to Scott, who badly needs one. But more than that, Liberace’s call to adopt, to somehow formalize the relationship, isn’t just twisted, it’s quite melancholy — because, of course, it’s the answer to an underlying desire that can never be fulfilled for these two: the desire to get married (which, in the ’70s, wasn’t even being talked about). And what they have — what we’re shown — is a marriage. Behind the Candelabra makes no political statement, yet in a way it makes an implicit one. It shows the degeneration of Liberace and Scott’s partnership as the consequence, in part, of a prejudiced society.
Of course, Scott also becomes a drug addict, popping prescription diet pills that he gets from Lowe’s slithery doctor/pusher, and devolving into a vintage cokehead. And this part of the movie has a trajectory familiar from countless other movies. Matt Damon, though, in a performance that gains in power, captures the drama of what happens when Scott’s thick cluelessness starts to bump up against his confrontation with who Liberace really is: a jealous control freak who is also, perhaps, a sex addict. As the relationship sprawls into the early ’80s, Scott’s “innocence” becomes his own way of conning himself. There’s no denying that Behind the Candelabra emerges from the tabloid-gossip school of celebrity biopic. Yet the film also possesses a rare and genuine tragic dimension. It’s about a man devoted to floridly over-the-top fakery (his showmanship, his hairpieces) who is looking for true love, and another man who wants to be taken care of like a child and can’t understand why he’s not loved, in return, as an adult. The whole situation is plenty messed up, and Behind the Candelabra is a movie of the TMZ age. It’s a voyeur’s delight. But it’s also a disarmingly sincere tribute to Liberace’s high-camp theatrical genius, and to the fact that flawed love is still love.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: